Application Tip #2 from the Director of Admissions
Be smart about choosing your recommenders.
Soojin Kwon is the director of admissions at the Ross School of Business. Since joining the Michigan Ross admissions team in 2004, Soojin has evaluated thousands of applications. She knows what makes applications stand out, and below she shares advice on how to put your best application forward.
See Soojin's first piece of advice: Commit to a training plan for the GMAT or GRE.
Soojin’s second piece of advice: “Be smart about choosing your recommenders.”
What does this advice mean?
Recommendation letters provide the admissions committee with a valuable perspective on your professional accomplishments, strengths and weaknesses, personal characteristics, and potential fit with our community. Our essay questions are straightforward in their attempt to gather this information. We won’t be evaluating your recommenders’ writing skills. We will be looking for content that helps us understand who you are as a professional and the role and impact you had within your organization.
A key to a solid recommendation lies in whom you select as the recommender. You should pick someone who knows you well, values your work, is committed to your success, and is willing to take the time to write a detailed recommendation that is supported by examples. You may be surprised to know that we occasionally see recommendation letters that are not supportive. This reflects poorly on the applicant, as it shows a lack of self-awareness of how he/she is viewed by others, as well as poor judgment in selecting recommenders.
Here are some guidelines for choosing the right recommenders and helping to ensure they provide quality input to the admissions committee’s evaluation of your application:
- Choose substance over title: In other words, don’t ask your CEO. Unless you have worked directly with a CEO for a significant amount of time, he/she probably will not know you well nor have the time to write a substantive letter. Instead, focus on finding someone who knows you and your professional strengths and weaknesses. The admissions committee would rather receive a recommendation letter from a mid-level manager that has depth, substance, and supportive examples than a generic recommendation from someone higher up in your organization.
- Go with professional relationships: We prefer to receive recommendations from direct supervisors (from both past and present jobs) rather than professors, peers, or family friends. However, we recognize that asking a direct supervisor is not always possible. In these situations, we suggest asking a work mentor, an unofficial supervisor, or a client. Some candidates work for a family business, are entrepreneurs, or find themselves between jobs. In lieu of a direct supervisor, we suggest asking an investor or a major client who has worked with you for a period of time, or perhaps a previous employer. If you are concerned about how we might perceive your choice of recommender, you may want to use our optional essay to address the topic.
- Make it easy for your recommenders: Set up a time to meet with your recommenders to give them context on why you want an MBA. Remind them of the projects you worked on together and the relevant project details. Provide a copy of a recent performance review. While the letter must be written in each recommender’s own words, those words will come easier once you’ve provided context and reference information. But don’t prepare your recommenders so extensively that their letters repeat what you’ve discussed in your essays. You also want to ensure that the two recommendation letters don’t sound virtually identical; this would make us question the authorship of the letter.
- Provide ample lead time: Remember that all parts of your application must be submitted by the application deadline, including the recommendation letters. Since it is more difficult to control the timeline of a third party, give your recommenders plenty of lead time. Ask now if you haven’t asked already and are applying for Round 2. It can be helpful to build in a buffer for yourself by providing them with a deadline well in advance of the actual application deadline. At a minimum, request the letter four weeks prior to the application deadline. You don’t want your recommenders to have only enough time to give one sentence answers to each question (which happens).
Keep the big picture in mind.
Recommendation letters only are one piece of your application. Ultimately, you cannot control what your recommenders write, and the admissions committee recognizes that fact. However, you do control the choice of recommenders and how well you prepare them to write your recommendation. Picking the right people and making the process easy for them will help maximize your chances for success.